The Gift that Keeps on Giving
No problem – or person – is too small to escape notice in Joe Stianche’s world
Joe Stianche sits in his office at Royal Trucking in West Point, Miss., peering intently at a cluster of AAA batteries in his hand and talking with a technician. A satellite receiver on a trailer has failed, and no one is sure about the recharging procedure for the batteries.
Sad to say, but some fleet managers would consider addressing a technician struggling with a handful of AAA batteries beneath their dignity. But it’s just one example of the attention to detail that Stianche has brought to every aspect of his career as a fleet manager in the heavy-duty trucking industry.
No issue – no matter how small – escapes his attention or fails to engage his imagination. No technician seeking knowledge is ever turned away. More often than not, a technician struggling with a thorny problem soon will find Stianche right there beside him, sleeves rolled up and grease under his fingernails, working with him to resolve the issue.
It’s that attitude and dedication to his profession that has earned Stianche recognition as Commercial Carrier Journal’s 2012 Career Leadership Award recipient.
Joe Stianche’s life and career are as all-American as it gets. His parents were immigrants: His father’s family arrived in America just before the First World War, while his Ukrainian-born mother escaped from famine and Stalin’s reign just before the second one began. Stianche himself was born in Allentown, Pa., where his grandfathers and uncles worked in and around the coalmines of Tamaqua and Lansford.
It was Stianche’s uncles, working in the explosives industry, who took their young nephew out to the mines in the hard coal region of Pennsylvania, where he became fascinated by mechanical systems on trucks and mining equipment – a passion that remains with him to this day. In his own words, Stianche had “The Gift.” Soon, there wasn’t a clock, a radio or even a TV in the house that wasn’t safe from the young boy who would take them apart to see what made them tick.
By the time Stianche was a teenager, his family had relocated to the Deep South – a region the young man fell in love with – and he became a “born-again southerner.” Education was highly prized in the Stianche home. As the eldest child, Stianche was expected to graduate from college. He eventually earned a degree from Georgia Tech.
But there were no free rides in the Stianche household, either. Stianche soon found himself working with his father, who was a regional vice president at Farmbest Dairies in Montgomery, Ala., and Atlanta. There, Stianche found himself drawn to the fleet of old gasoline-powered Divco delivery vans out back – and he fell under the tutelage of a hard-bitten old Navy man named Mike Cassidy who mentored Stianche on the mysteries of fleet management and set him on a course for his career.
“If I wanted to get ahead in this life, I couldn’t limit myself to just working with my hands. I needed to develop my brain as well.”
“These were the old round-nose vans that you drove standing up,” Stianche recalls. “And I was given the chance to work on them when they were in the yard. This was in the day and age when you had starter problems, you had clutch problems, you had ignition problems, and in a fleet like that where you had to have trucks ready to go every day – no excuses. They’d burn a valve on a truck, and they’d bring it in, and your job was to have the cylinder head on the floor hot when the guy from the machine shop came to get it – he’d better burn his hands when he picked it up. But it was my introduction to that world. I learned a lot, learned I loved it and gained some good early management experience as well.”
Eager to continue his fledgling maintenance career, Stianche began to waver on his commitment to attend college. “I wanted to be the world’s greatest mechanic,” he remembers. It was Cassidy who convinced him that if he wanted to get ahead in this life, he couldn’t limit himself to just working with his hands. “I needed to develop my brain as well. And he’s the one who convinced me to crack down and get that degree.”
On the right foot
While working his way through college as a mechanic at Yellow Freight, Stianche realized he wanted to work on and with trucks. Newly wed to Barbara, his high school sweetheart, and fresh out of college, he jumped at the opportunity when the company offered him a supervisor’s position in the management trainee program. Stianche began in Richmond, Va., studying under Billy Ross and working with his new mentor on ways to improve fuel economy standards across the Yellow Freight fleet – a revolutionary concept in 1973 when diesel fuel was selling for about 30 cents a gallon.
“That what it’s all about – fuel,” Stianche says. “I was fortunate to learn that in my earliest days as a fleet manager. Fuel has always been a significant cost in fleet operations, and it is a cost that has only increased over the years.”
Stianche was in the right place at the right time. “We had a unique situation with Yellow in Richmond because there was a captive fleet there we could control,” he notes. “We went north and south primarily, so it was a good place to [test] fuel economy. And there were a lot of smart people there I was able to learn from. Guys like Mr. Ross and Bob Rosenthal, who was with Detroit Diesel. I really got started off on the right foot.”
After some time in Virginia, Stianche found himself posted to Yellow Freight’s Cleveland depot in 1975. “The city fleet there was a combination of gas and diesel trucks,” Stianche remembers. “Yellow’s policy at the time was to bring old single-axle road tractors in and end their lives running in the city. We had gas-powered GMCs and Freightliner cabovers. No electronics – very simple trucks.”
Cleveland, in Stianche’s words, was an “old school” operation and very challenging for a young fleet manager. “That city is hard on trucks,” he says today. “You’ve got six months of winter and bad roads with lots of potholes, which leads to lots of suspension problems.”
Heading back south
Stianche’s experience at Yellow Freight was mostly positive – except for the harsh Ohio winters in Cleveland. He and Barbara ached for the warm South. He was looking around and saw a company running an ad for a fleet manager in Jackson, Miss. “Barbara and I pulled out a map,” Stianche recalls. “Jackson was about 3 inches from the Gulf of Mexico and had a big old lake right next to it. It sounded perfect.”
The company was refrigerated hauler KLLM, which needed somebody to run its fleet of 85 trucks and 150 trailers. “I called up Denny Lee and Billy Lyles, who owned the fleet, and told them I was their guy.”
At KLLM, Stianche continued to hone his fleet management skills in a wide array of areas, including an early test program evaluating tractor and trailer air-disc brake systems. In particular, he maintained his emphasis on increasing fuel economy, working closely with Caterpillar and other OEMs to test and verify powertrain specifications. In addition to the technical aspects of fuel economy, Stianche began pioneering work in tying driver performance into the equation – and the results were impressive.
“No matter what you do under the hood, the driver will always be the single biggest influence on a truck’s fuel economy.”
“KLLM’s core business at the time was running lettuce to the West Coast, so fuel economy was a big issue,” he said. “We started working with Caterpillar on their Fuel Economy Challenge program to get our numbers up.”
Over time, the relationship between Cat and KLLM became close because of the consistency of the tests the fleet was able to run and the subsequent reliability of the data they produced. “If Caterpillar wanted to test something, they came to us,” Stianche says. “We were exposed to a lot of their ideas that worked – and we were able to adopt them early.”
Stianche also was able to fold the lessons learned at Yellow Freight into the equation to take KLLM’s fuel economy efforts even farther. “Because of my experience with Yellow, I knew how important reducing rpms was for fuel economy,” he says. “We built 1,800-rpm engines out of Caterpillar’s generator specs and put them in our trucks and ran them before Cat ever had those engines out.”
KLLM also was an early adopter of Rockwell trip recorders. “There was an opportunity there to start looking at how the driver was part of fuel economy and begin a comprehensive program to get the drivers on board,” Stianche says. “No matter what you do under the hood, the driver will always be the single biggest influence on a truck’s fuel economy. You have to have them on board to get the full potential from a fuel economy initiative.”
When Stianche joined KLLM in 1979, the fleet’s fuel economy average was 3¾ miles per gallon. “When I left in ’96, we were well above 6 miles per gallon.” On top of all that, Stianche held the reins as KLLM expanded rapidly in terms of both applications and equipment. “We grew the fleet from 85 trucks and 150 trailers to about 1,300 tractors and almost 2,000 trailers by the time my tenure there ended,” he notes.
After KLLM went public in the mid-’90s, Stianche felt it was time to move on. He shifted gears to the service provider side of trucking and was parts and service director at a dealership for two years. Then he got back into the fleet side by starting a consulting business, working with several regional fleets. He returned to the private fleet environment in 2000, joining Laurel, Miss.-based Sanderson Farms for eight years as fleet maintenance manager.
After leaving Sanderson Farms, he returned to consulting. Today, as president of J.M. Stianche Services, he works with his clients, including Royal Trucking in West Point, where he leverages his 30-plus years of experience to help fleets streamline their operations, both in the shop and on the highway.
Today, looking back over a long accomplished career, Stianche has no hesitation when asked what he believes his most important contribution has been.
“Safety is the most important thing we do,” he says flatly. “Whether it’s shop safety or improving safety in vehicles, you simply cannot cut corners or take things for granted. You never know how to quantify what you’ve done when it comes to safety, but I can tell you that in over 30 years, I’ve never had to investigate a fatality for people that worked for me. I figure that’s pretty important.”
Stealing and innovation
Today, Stianche continues to pursue his many passions. His consulting business allows him to stay heavily engaged in the industry he loves so well – as does a longstanding association with the Technology and Maintenance Council, where he has been an active participant since 1978. “When I look back, I feel lucky to have enjoyed a working relationship with virtually every past Career Leadership Award recipient since the program was founded,” he says.
Stianche has served on TMC’s board of directors and – not surprisingly – has been heavily involved with the S6 Engine Task Force for many years. Still, he says he has taken far more out of TMC than he has contributed to the organization. “I’m constantly amazed by the people – and friends – I’ve met and made through TMC,” he says. “And I laugh sometimes – to go to TMC and steal ideas from somebody else, make them work for you – and then you’re called the ‘innovator?’ I don’t understand that. But we all do it.”
“Joe is one of the smartest guys in the industry today with the highest level of common sense you’ll find,” says Darry Stuart, a past Career Leadership Award recipient and president of DWS Fleet Services. “He does not allow corporate propaganda to sway him on a project. He’s interested in the science and what works. He never deviates from that.”
Billy Millican, president of Royal Trucking, had no doubt who to ask for help when fuel economy became a concern for his fleet. “I met Joe at a CCJ Symposium,” Millican says. “I knew him by reputation. We needed him to help us get better across the board. We knew that fuel and safety are the key aspects for any fleet that wants to be profitable and efficient, and we wanted to learn how from the best. I’d recommend him to anybody who needs to know the state of the art of truck fleet maintenance.”
“CCJ could not have picked a better man to receive the Career Leadership Award than Joe Stianche,” says Bud West, now retired as director of production and an executive committee member at Sanderson Farms. “We started expanding our company when Joe was with us. Joe had to build several new complexes around the country for us from scratch and did an excellent job of going into those communities and putting those facilities together, as well as spec’ing all-new truck fleets for us and installing entire shops and maintenance organizations to support them.”
Today, Stianche and Barbara pursue a wide array of interests, including racing (his admitted “second passion”), scuba diving, travel, photography and – of course – his grandchildren. He enjoys mentoring and says he happily will hand a wrench to any neighborhood kid who wanders up while he’s working on his beloved Alpha Romeos out in the shop. He’s even worked to get several kids involved in racing.
“Sometimes, when you see a kid who’s got ‘The Gift’ and spends a lot of time tinkering with engines, they don’t always relate well to adults or other children their age,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier to help a person like that – whether it’s a kid or a technician – see there’s more to the world and reach their potential.”
About the Career Leadership Award
Joe Stianche is the 36th person to receive Commercial Carrier Journal’s top honor for lifetime achievement in fleet maintenance. Safeway Stores’ E. Clair Hill was the first to be so honored in 1977. CCJ’s Technology and Maintenance Career Leadership Award honors a career of dedication to professionalism and excellence in fleet maintenance. Industry involvement, recognitions and awards and reputation among peers figure into the selection. Individuals who made significant contributions to the industry while directly engaged in truck fleet management are eligible even if they no longer work for a fleet operation. CCJ welcomes nominations for the 2013 Career Leadership Award. Contact Jeff Crissey at email@example.com.